Emily Howlett: Learning to ‘sing’ for my performance in last night’s episode of the BBC’s Inside No. 9

Posted on March 8, 2017

To watch Emily in Inside No.9, go to the show’s website here.

I don’t sing. Ok? Ever. I had two singing lessons as part of a desperate attempt at speech therapy, age 12, and we’ve been paying for the teacher’s counselling ever since.

I am Deaf. I can’t hear my own voice. I have very little understanding of what constitutes music, and no idea at all about things like keys, pitch or melody – I even struggle with the concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ sounds. I sort of ‘get it’, but it’s very abstract and difficult, and, if I’m honest, I’d rather spend my time improving my cake eating skills instead.

But, when Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton (The League of Gentlemen), ask you to sing, you’re going to sing, godammit.

When I received the script for ‘Empty Orchestra’, nearly 18 months ago, I loved the character of Janet. She was Deaf, with speech and sign, but other than that we were polar opposites. She’s quite passive, quiet, sweet and generally happy looking after people, especially her boss, Roger. She will take a lot of crap before she snaps, and she wears her heart on her sleeve, to the point of singing a song to her love interest, in a karaoke booth, full of hearing people.

Who’d want to be Janet? Evidently, in real life, I am none of these things. Quiet? Ha. Sweet? Blah. I would have slapped some sense into Roger years ago, and I’d rather eat my own feet with a spoon than sing.

But, needs must. The script said Janet sings, so if I wanted to have a chance of playing her, it followed that Emily sings. Ugh. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be able to do this on my own.

I quickly enlisted the help of a good friend of mine, John Chambers, who I met through his work as a composer. John has worked for my company, PAD Productions, on two of our shows, creating music and soundscapes for both artistic and access purposes. He’s rather good at making music, and, crucially, he’s even better at explaining it.

Before auditions, I spent a number of sessions with John in a studio, looking at the song, ‘Only You’ by Yazoo. Which, by the way Mr Shearsmith, Mr Pemberton, is the worst bloody song you could ever have given a deafie to learn. It has really weird rhythm, the vocals are hard to pick out and it’s just plain DIFFICULT. Sadists. I applaud you.

First of all I had to learn about the rhythm. This sounds easy; it’s kind of not, when you can’t hear it. We had to crank up the bass (which isn’t particularly strong), and spend a long time with me copying John tapping it out on the desk, then onto my knees, then using my feet to tap it onto the floor. Once this became almost a learned behaviour, I could use it keep myself tapping in time with the music. Mostly.

Having established the beat, we then had to add the lyrics. With no attempt to match the notes, because, frankly, who knows what the hell they are? John painstakingly helped me find the number of beats between each line, each word, and memorise them onto the rhythm I was tapping out. I went wrong a lot. A LOT. But, it worked. Even the part where the singer throws two or three words out really fast, against the pattern you’ve just learned. I suspect this was because, years ago when it was recorded, they wanted to really challenge any Deaf actors who might use their song in a future television series. I thank them for their foresight in advancing my skills.

Once I could say the words pretty much where they should appear within the melody, John then cut all the lyrics out of the script, and created a board of ‘tune’. I still can’t really explain what tune or pitch is. ‘High’ is the sounds that you feel more in your throat, and ‘low’ sounds rumble and vibrate in your chest. High are also at the right of the piano, and low are at the left, and there’s a ton of crap you can say about the variations from one end to the other, but this is the limit of my knowledge. If you bash a low note, you can feel it. If you bash a high note, you can’t, but hearing people twitch a bit. It’s excellent fun.

John stuck the lyrics to the board, placing them physically higher or lower depending on the type of sound they were. He went so far as to talk about notes, but as I couldn’t hear them, there was no way I was going to match them correctly. He came up with some great ideas, including me feeling the vibrations from the piano and trying to match them vocally, or me making a constant hum sound and being guided by him as to whether it need to go higher or lower, and trying to do so.

We did this FOREVER.

In the end, it paid off, because I got the role. It was one of the best and most welcoming sets I’ve been on, especially in mainstream filming. I never once felt like a token Deaf, which is rare and beautiful.

All the characters have ‘their’ song. The others used an earpiece to listen to their music while filming, and their vocals were recorded live. My earpiece was taped behind my wig, and turned up full so I could try and feel the beat. The wonderful Tamzin Outhwaite (incidentally, my mortal enemy in the show), gave me a secret count in, and off I went. ‘Singing’. No idea what it turned out like, but nobody died. I don’t think… It’s quite a secretive show. They might have covered it up.

It was brilliant. I did a thing that I really didn’t think I’d be able to do. Of course, I don’t sing beautifully! I sing like a Deaf person, and, more importantly, I sing like Janet, because Emily would have thrown a grenade into the karaoke booth and legged it. But, I did the thing that seemed impossible. And it was, in massive part, down to the skills and support of John, and the Inside No. 9 team and cast. So, thanks, guys.

By the way, in the episode, I’m dressed as Boy George. This is the real reason I wanted the part badly enough to be stuck in a freezing studio for days. Janet goes to this karaoke party and doesn’t dress up as a sexy popstar. She goes as Boy George. She just is who she is. And she wins.

I might try and be more Janet, after all.

To watch Emily in Inside No.9, go to the show’s website here.

Emily Howlett is a regular writer for this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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